Ottawa

COVID-19 tests at Ottawa airport unlikely, says authority

As the Ford government calls for COVID-19 testing for international travellers, Ottawa's airport likely wouldn't be on the shortlist of sites to administer those tests.

Few passengers and no international flights make funding it difficult, says authority

The departures level of the Ottawa International Airport in May 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since March, the airport has only handled domestic flights and experienced a fraction of the number of travellers this holiday season. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

As the province calls for COVID-19 testing for international travellers, Ottawa's airport likely won't be on the shortlist of sites to administer those tests.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford slammed the federal government earlier this week for not doing enough to protect the province from international travellers.

Despite the Macdonald–Cartier International Airport's name, it hasn't had any overseas flights coming in or going out since March. If testing is mandated, the airport would need the federal government's help to put it in place, said Krista Kealey, vice-president of communications and public affairs with the Ottawa International Airport Authority.

"There's a lot of costs associated with a testing program that certainly, we would be very hard pressed to cover at this time because we just don't have enough travellers."

Passenger levels have dropped dramatically since the pandemic began, even around the normally busy holiday season.  While the airport would normally see between 15,000 and 17,000 passengers a day, it hit little more than 1,000 people departing the city last Friday and Saturday, and dropped to between 800 and 900 a day earlier this week.

"We expect it to dip down a little bit more after today and perhaps pick up a little toward the end of next week," Kealey said. "It's a stark difference."

Krista Kealey with the Ottawa International Airport Authority says with a dramatic drop in travellers, the airport wouldn't have the funds to pay for COVID-19 tests for passengers. (Kimberley Molina/CBC)

Don't travel, epidemiologist says

Even if international travellers are eventually tested for COVID-19 before entering the country, one expert believes people should be staying put.

"Air travel is not safe. Small, confined airspace, not safe," said Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto.

"Yes, plane air is filtered, but it's really important to understand that planes deliberately recirculate air … You couldn't pay me any amount of money to get on an airplane."

The Ottawa airport would normally see between 15,000 and 17,000 passengers a day come through the terminal. This year, it's much less. (Jérémie Bergeron/Radio-Canada)

He said just because there have been limited cases of COVID-19 tied to travel, it doesn't mean it doesn't exist. Instead, the low numbers are not due to a lack of cases, but inadequate contact tracing.

"Airlines like to say that they're very safe because we can't find cases. I disagree. I think flying's extremely dangerous and it's just extremely difficult to measure," he said.

Furness also said if travellers are required to be tested, it should be both international and domestic travellers, and before they get on a plane.

With files from CBC's Sarah Kester

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